IT HAS taken me a while to get around to writing up the last day of my April 2023 trip (over four months, in fact) but that delay should not be in any way taken as a commentary on the experience. On the other hand, it is very much an indicator of my propensity to get distracted by stuff and things since then. On the day, 19 Apr 23 yielded a very pleasant stroll along a sandy beach. A ten-mile stroll, plus a few extra miles on each end. And they went something like this…
My day began fairly sedately, arising at a civilised time and enjoying a leisurely breakfast at the Newburgh Inn, where I had stayed the night before. I knew that my total distance for the day was going to be about half that of the previous and that, accordingly, I had no need to rush. I also knew that my route for the day would be incredibly simple, as was confirmed to me by every breakfast interaction at the inn. The singular refrain, on asking me plans and being told them, was ‘Oh, I guess you’ll just follow the beach the whole way then?’
My breakfast devoured, I emerged blinking into blinding sunbeams and faced my only navigational challenge of the morning – namely, finding my way to the beach.
And so, clutching my eyes and wailing ‘it burns me, it burns me!’ I followed the road more by feel than sight until the asphalt turned into sand underfoot.
The water in question was the River Ythan (the ‘y’ is pronounced ‘eye’) and, more specifically, its estuary.
The Ythan Estuary (Inbhir Eithein) is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) with breeding populations of various kinds of seabirds including shelducks and cormorants amongst others which, I’m pretty sure, have played some fowl trick on the resident mammals:
I particularly like how the seals have found the only patch of shingle for miles to sit on, as if pretending they’re just big pebbles and that there’s nothing to see here…
The southern shore of the Ythan Estuary was backed by the sand dunes of Foveran Links, which stretched away to the south to become Drums Links and eventually Menie Links. ‘Links’ is the Scottish term for coastal dune terrain, though these days it has also become synonymous with the sort of golf course that often occupies it. In the case of Menie Links, that course is Trump International Golf Links (TIGL), which was established in 2012 and has since sufficiently damaged the dunes that their SSSI status was revoked in 2020.
Foveran Links, on the other hand, had retained its SSSI status, which meant, amongst other things, that I probably shouldn’t go traipsing all over its dunes.
Aberdeen Bay Wind Farm
Lurking two miles offshore and visible pretty much all day were the turbines of Aberdeen Bay Wind Farm. This was constructed in 2017 despite, ironically, protests from Donald Trump that they would ruin the view from the dunes that he’d bulldozed. His legal challenge to the planning permission was rejected by the Court of Session in 2014 and an appeal against that decision was rejected in 2015. A further appeal against that decision was rejected by the Supreme Court of the UK that same year.
As I headed south along the beach, I became aware of a number of suspiciously cuboid boulders in an equally suspicious straight line along the foot of the dunes. This was, of course, a defensive line of anti-tank cubes left over from WW2, when they were erected for miles to thwart any landings by the Wehrmacht.
I had walked a little over a mile from the Ythan when I came to the next watercourse to spill out over the beach. This one was rather less of a barrier, though:
The stream was so small in fact, that it didn’t seem to have a name on most maps, though a map attached to the SSSI review named it as Drums Burn which makes sense – it cuts across Drums Links, passing close to the farmstead of Drums, so I don’t know what else I could reasonably expect it to be called.
I splashed quickly across; it barely wetted the soles of my boots.
Much as I would have loved this to be the head of a giant robot, stealthily keeping an eye on the wind turbines in case they get out of hand, it was, of course, merely a pillbox.
Much like its colleague that had been observing the Ythan Estuary seals with a quizzical tilt, it was specifically a Type 24, erected during WW2 to bolster the anti-tank cube line with human observers and firepower. It was an irregular hexagon in plan, with the rear (where the door was) being longer than the front face.
Such pillboxes were placed at regular intervals all along the cube line and, like the cubes, many have since been covered by the shifting sands. But not this one. Not yet.
A short distance beyond the pillbox, I came to Sandend Burn, the name of which made no obvious sense. In no way at all did the sand end at it, neither the beach nor the dunes. Nor did it pass any place called Sandend – at least, not according to my maps – rising near Hillhead (named Hillhead of Ardo on older maps) and then passing Delfrigs and Hatterseat.
Sandend Burn was the boundary between the old parishes of Foveran (Fobharan) and Balhelvie and a boundary stone was erected by its banks within Drums Links but has long since been swallowed by the dunes.
The dunes inland and immediately south of Sandend Burn had formed Menie Links and indeed still do, though they have changed significantly in character, following the 2012 construction of TIGL. Not that I could tell that from the tidal beach flat, of course; from my perspective, all I saw was a line of dunes backing the beach, looking pretty much like all the dunes I’d seen doing that so far. The golf course remained hidden from my eyes, which was a mercy; I irrationally loathe them, even at the best of times.
Menie Sand Sheet
Prior to the construction of Trump’s golf course, one of the most significant features of Menie Links was the Menie Sand Sheet, a large unvegetated sand sheet complex, over 600 m long and over 400 m wide. A 2007 report noted that:
‘Amongst the very small number of comparable dune sites containing sand sheets in Scotland and elsewhere in Great Britain, the undisturbed sand sheet at Menie Links is the most extensive, dynamic and demonstrably systematic in its mode of transit of any such feature. Furthermore, in view of the relatively unique north-west European context of the north-east coast of Scotland, the Menie sand sheet is also of great interest and scientific value in an international context.’
Sadly, a 2019 geomorphological assessment observed that:
‘As was anticipated at the Public Local Inquiry the sand sheet was used as a sand quarry to provide the necessary land-raising and cut and fill volumes for many of the golf holes.’
The latter document also included numerous photos showing that what was left of the formerly unvegetated mobile dune system was now stabilised and covered in Marram grass, substantially changing the nature of the links.
At the southern end of Menie Links was Menie Burn, which was only marginally more voluminous than Sandend Burn had been, in that I might get some water in my footwear if I stood still in it.
During WW2, this particular stretch of beach was a considerably greater barrier to invasion than these few anti-tank cubes might suggest – it was turned into a minefield! Fortunately, the Royal Engineers cleared it afterwards, so leaping high into the air and scattering myself broadly and bloodily all over the sands was unlikely to be included in my afternoon’s activities.
I could probably have splashed across Menie Burn just as I had Sandend and Drums Burns but I was starting to get other ideas. It was a glorious day and I had the beach to myself. The water was cold, my feet were tired – less so from today than the previous ones cumulatively – and, well, you can probably see where this was going.
As I had always been going to, I stripped off my footwear and secured it to my bag before splashing across the stream barefoot. And then, because if you’re going to paddle at the water’s edge, you should do it properly, I veered left into the edge of the surf and more-or-less stayed there for the next seven miles until I reached the River Don.
Mill of Menie
If I had headed inland up Menie Burn (which I did not, even without a tank), I would have first come to the Mill of Menie and then to Menie House. The Mill of Menie was, unsurprisingly, the mill that served the Menie Estate. The actual mill still retains the outer frame of its wheel, and its internal internal workings are also largely complete.
Of more modern pertinence is farmer Michael Forbes, who lives in a cottage at Mill of Menie and who refused to sell his 23 acres of land to Donald Trump in 2006, when the latter had designs to include it in his planned golf course.
After Mr Forbes – who had lived on the Menie Estate since the age of fourteen – refused an offer that he found desultory, Trump attempted to persuade Aberdeenshire Council to compulsorily purchase the land and that of his neighbours, displacing four families. Forbes and his neighbours objected and their struggle raised international attention, prompting the council to state that no formal request for a compulsory purchase order (CPO) had been received, nor had they plans to issue one.
In the course of the dispute, Mr Trump disparaged Mr Forbes’s house as ‘beyond disrepair’ and ‘a pigsty’ but, Mr Forbes insisted that it was his pigsty and that he had no plans to sell it. The families are still there, the plans having been defeated, and Trump moved on to deliver personal diatribes against those members of Aberdeenshire Council who had opposed the proposed CPO.
The centrepiece of the Menie Estate is Menie House, which sits on the site of a 15th century castle.
After many various owners, it was purchased by George Turner (1705-1772), sheriff-clerk of Aberdeenshire in the early 18th century and came in time to be inherited by his grandson and namesake, General Sir George Turner (1780 – 1864). In 1835, the general hired Aberdeen architect John Smith (1781-1852) to build a neo-Jacobean mansion, incorporating the previous (1782) house into its structure. It is listed as Category B by Historic Scotland.
In 2006, the house formed part of the purchase by Trump Organisation, which renamed it Trump MacLeod House after Trump’s mother, Mary Anne MacLeod (who was from Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis on literally the other side of Scotland). It is now a 16-bedroom guesthouse serving the golf course.
Court of Lord Lyon
After purchasing as much of the Menie Estate as he was able, Donald Trump hit a new issue with his plans when he emblazoned the property and its promotional material with a coat of arms.
It is a general principle of heraldry that no two men in the same jurisdiction may use the same coat of arms, the very point of arms being to identify the individual, but how each jurisdiction handles that depends from country to country. In England, it is a civil matter, adjudicated by the Court of Chivalry, but in Scotland the matter is criminal and all arms used publicly must be registered with Lord Lyon King of Arms as mandated by an Act of Parliament in 1672. Trump, it appeared, had simply designed himself a coat of arms as though it were a logo, which one can do in America but not legally in Scotland.
What he had actually done, it transpired, was heraldically and morally worse. In 1985, when he bought the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, it had the coat of arms of American diplomat Joseph Edward Davies (1876-1958) upon its gates – Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973), who built it, had been Davies’ wife – and Trump simply started using those arms, which is a big heraldic no-no. The only change he made was to replace the motto integritas (‘integrity’) with ‘Trump,’ which is almost a comical commentary on the situation in itself. Davies’ arms had been granted to him by the English College of Arms in 1939.
New Grant of Arms
The actual penalties that the Court of Lord Lyon can impose are pretty limited – an order to stop using the offending coat arms and a £100 fine, although failure to comply with such an order does count as contempt of court – but TIGL bowed to the law and paid Lord Lyon the appropriate fees for a revised shield (£900) and crest (£1300+) of its own to use instead:
Trump has changed the colours, though he usually shows it as a gold-on-black design rather than a full colour rendition, so that’s not particularly obvious in practice. I’m amused that he’s got himself an additional chevron, as if self-promoting from corporal to sergeant. I actually think the new TIGL coat of arms is a better one than Davies got – his ermine field made the whole thing look fussy and the demi-lions got lost against its background.
In America, despite the protests of Davies’ family, Trump simply trademarked the stolen Davies coat of arms.
After Menie Burn, the next unsuccessfully obstacular item was Blairton Burn, which was watched over by another Type 24 pillbox. This particular pillbox reappeared in 2014 after stormy weather, having spent several decades buried within the sands.
Continuing south, I found myself passing Blairton Links, the southern part of which were historically known as Drumside Links (from Gaelic druim, meaning ‘ridge’). A pair of chunky bronze armlets were found in its dunes in 1853, dating to circa the 3rd century.
One wonders to whom these ornaments might once have belonged and how they came to lose them and what the consequences were. Such items of adornment would not be abandoned lightly.
Blairton Links came to an end at Eigie Burn, which is known in its upper reaches at Kepplestone Burn instead. This brought me roughly level with the northern edge of Balmedie (Baile Mheadhain), a largeish village housing a population of about 2,500, and presented me with my first opportunity since leaving Newburgh to visit a shop and buy snacks or cold drinks (I was carrying water with me but nothing more exciting). Did I want to make a brief diversion to explore and exploit its amenities?
Splashing across Eigie Burn, I now found myself upon Balmedie Beach which, in the 1940s, offered alternative means to blow oneself to kingdom come. Unlike the beach by Mill of Menie, which had been strewn with landmines of British manufacture, Balmedie Beach was littered with German explosives, but put there by us.
This might sound silly but it actually served an importance purpose: it was a bomb cemetery, where German bombs that had been removed from where they had actually fallen – i.e., Aberdeen – could be stored and disarmed more-or-less safely (in the sense that if they did blow up, incidental casualties should be minimal out on the beach).
Inland from Balmedie Beach were the dunes of Eigie Links and I followed these down to their end at the next stream, which was Millden Burn. Like Eigie Burn, this also had a different name in its upper reaches, where it was called Potterton Burn, but it was as Millden Burn that it spilled out across the beach.
The Rising Tide
It was here, poised to splash across Millden Burn, that I suddenly became aware of something that had been becoming increasingly true for some time: I now had a lot less beach to walk on. The tide had crept inexorably inwards, as it does, and I found myself looking for the tide mark to see how much less I might end up with yet.
The good news was that along most of the beach, I was probably not going to need to scale the dune face, but I might end up close enough to touch it, were I to stretch out my arm. However, while Millden Burn was still unimpressively shallow, the ripples funnelling into it were a foreshadowing of how the tide could deepen some others further down the beach. Ah well, I would cross (or possibly not cross) that bridgelessness when I came to it…
For now, I still had several metres of beach and that was good because, at this specific point, Millden Burn was running along the back of it, creating a deep channel to cut me off from the dunes like their very own defensive moat. It looked very much as if at high tide, on this particular stretch, the entire beach would be covered and scaling the dunes would not so much be unnecessary as impossible without getting very wet.
It would, I decided, be a good idea to get past this point before the tide came in any further.
The pillbox above was being a bit of a drama queen as it was clearly far past the point where Millden Burn had turned inland and there was nothing between me and the dune line of Millden Links. Well, nothing apart from this pillbox that is. While I was still confident that the tide was not going to completely swallow the beach (and even if it did, it would still be shallow enough to keep splashing through), it was also reassuring to see that the dune face was a slope that could be scrabbled up in an emergency and not a sand cliff, like it had been back at Menie Burn.
Blackdog & Strabathie
Blackdog Firing Range
As I continued southwards, I found myself passing Blackdog Firing Range, which is used by the British Army for rifle training, not that I could see it from my position at the foot of the dunes.
A line of anti-tank cubes had part-emerged from the sands at this point, but thankfully no trace remained of the WW2 minefield that had accompanied them (like that at Mill of Menie, it had been removed by 11th Company Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal under Major William M Hewitt GM (1914-2001)). The clean-up operation did not go entirely smoothly, as a Wasp flamethrower – a modified Universal Carrier, which was a light tracked vehicle usually carrying a Bren gun – which was being used to burn off vegetation while clearing the dunes, managed to drive over one of the mines and blow itself up causing multiple injuries.
Major Hewitt was no stranger to danger – he worked in bomb disposal, after all – as was recognised by his being awarded the George Medal in 1941. This is the second-tier award for acts of gallantry outside of active combat, the top tier being the George Cross, and had only been instituted a year earlier as a means to reward public bravery during the Blitz. Hewitt (then still a captain) earned his GM in East Lothian, diving repeatedly into a flooded river to save a bridge from a bomb that had obscured itself in the mud.
I, thankfully, faced no danger from WW2 bombs or mines, nor from any bullets from the range, which would pass way over my head. However, the range did make the idea of scrambling up the dunes away from the tide seem rather less clever, so I found myself re-examining how much beach I had left.
I passed the range without incident and found myself approaching Skelly Rock. This is actually a handful of rocks barely poking up out of the sand and, as such, but I didn’t get to see them on account of being underwater.
Just beyond Skelly Rock, I came to something I could see, which was another pillbox. This one had tumbled forward out of the dunes and was lying on its back with its feet up in the air, though these were part-covered with sand slipped down from the dune face.
That I could see this particular pillbox was a serendipitous accident of timing as it had been buried and long-lost until very recently. According to some fairly confused newspaper reports from early March 2023, it was discovered as having appeared overnight by a man (Alan Neave) who was out walking his dog.
The papers seemed to take it that this meant it had literally popped out of the sands in March but they also quoted Mr Neave as saying it had appeared ‘in the last couple of weeks’, which fits well with it actually being uncovered by Storm Otto, which struck Scotland’s east coast on 17 Feb. On that basis, it had only re-emerged from the sands two months prior to my passing it.
About three hundred metres further south, I came to my first actual obstacle of the day in the form of Blackdog Burn. At low tide, this would have been no more problematic than the other burns I had crossed, but at high water, it was a slightly different story. Not only was its channel full but waves were washing up it, adding to its height. It was by no means impassible, sure, but I needed to be a bit careful if I wanted to keep my shorts out of the sea.
The answer was pretty simple, as it turned out. I hopped down off its bank and headed upstream along the edge, until I got far enough that I could cross without wading any deeper than my knees. I then came back downstream and stepped up onto the far bank.
On the far side, visible in the above photo as a dark shape in front of the dune face, was my second upside-down pillbox of the day.
Strabathie Brick & Tile Works
From 1898 to 1924, the tiny hamlet of Blackdog played host to the Strabathie Brick & Tile Works, which were operated by the Seaton Brick & Tile Company. This had been established in Seaton in Aberdeen sometime before 1773 as Alexander Annand & Company, and changed its name in 1884 after buying out a competitor.
Strabathie Light Railway
The company built its own 3½-mile light railway to transport bricks from the brickworks to a depot near the Bridge of Don, though no one appears to have told the Ordnance Survey about this. After they went into liquidation in 1924, part of the railway was bought by Murcar Golf Course and run for its own convenience until 1949.
Looking at old maps of the area, a couple of things stand out. One is the notable absence of the Strabathie Light Railway, the other is that the burns have changed their courses. Blackdog Burn now veers north to meet another burn before flowing into the sea but it didn’t use to. Instead, It used to flow out further south, close to where the Burn of Mundurno now meets the sea, that burn also having veered north over the course of the 20th century.
Thus, as I passed Blackdog Rock, which meant that I was just two miles north of Aberdeen, it was south of the mouth of Blackdog Burn whereas old accounts described it as being north of it.
The tide being high, Blackdog Rock was trying hard to hide from sight but it needn’t have bothered as my eyes were drawn elsewhere…
In addition to the wind turbines of the Aberdeen Bay Wind Farm (which were now behind me, being offshore from Balmedie), other shapes now sat upon the horizon. Shapes that looked deceptively low, though close-up they would be absolutely massive – cargo ships waiting to enter the Port of Aberdeen.
Burn of Mundurno
Nestled in its current location, the Burn of Mundurno promised to be a better barrier than Blackdog Burn had been, being deeper with a steeper bed and unstable sides. Stepping off into the shallows was not so easy here, as the stream bed just collapsed underfoot, sliding away towards the centre. I was definitely going to have to pick my spot carefully, if I didn’t want to walk off with wet shorts.
Actually, I knew no such thing. I’m properly rubbish at jumping across gaps and I tend to land badly thanks to my appalling sense of balance. Jumping across was one thing I would not be doing. Instead, I carefully picked what looked like the shallowest spot I could find and made it across with just the very cuffs of my short legs dampened.
Lack of Trunks
I was, it suddenly dawned on me, making things harder for myself than perhaps they had needed to be. The whole burn-crossing thing would have been so much easier, I realised, had I been wearing swimming trunks rather than clothes that I preferred to keep dry. Alas, I had brought no trunks with me.
The fallen tree puzzled me somewhat as I wondered where it had come from. There were no trees in the dunes of Balgownie Links that I could see, although arguably there wouldn’t be if that had been the only one and fallen over. Then again, given the obvious northward drift of material, perhaps it had floated up from Aberdeen?
I was definitely getting closer to the city now, not that I could tell from my position on the beach. Although I remained in splendid isolation, I knew from my map that I as now drawing level with the northern edge of Denmore, which is part of the larger suburb of Bridge of Don, and that Balgownie Links would continue all the way to that river.
It was at this point that I met the first other person that I had seen on the beach in ages. Specifically, it was an anxious young man on the verge of actual panic. It turned out that he had lost his mobile phone earlier while strolling on the beach, before the tide had come in, and was now frantic to find it. I wished him luck as he strode up the beach but I really didn’t fancy his chances.
Subsequently, I might have checked and double-checked that I still had my own phone several times. Y’know, like you do. It was in one of the pockets of my cargo shorts and had been part of the reason I didn’t want to wade in thigh-deep, as that would have necessitated figuring out somewhere else to carry it and then alarming myself later, when I inevitably forgot where that was.
With each step taking me closer to the time where I would have to stop splashing through the surf and put my shoes back on, I waded onwards, soon coming to a burn that seems to be unnamed on any map. It was little more than a drainage channel that separates off from the Silver Burn via a culvert near the old farmhouse of Ironfield, so I guess it would take its name from that if it had to. Either way, it was easier to cross than the Burn of Mundurno had been.
Not long thereafter, I crossed another seemingly nameless drain, this time one that passed close to the old farmstead of Links of Balgownie and then snaked across Balgownie Golf Course, which belongs to the Royal Aberdeen Golf Club. I guess that would probably make it Balgownie Burn if it had to have a label?
It was at about this point that I started to see tall buildings on the horizon that must be part of Aberdeen.
I’m pretty sure the outlet pipe above was a merely drain off the golf course and probably fine to just splash through. Even so, I jumped its little stream (it’s hard to trust an industrial-looking pipe), so I may have missed the chance to develop super-powers from magic, mutagenic chemicals.
I was now rapidly approaching Donmouth, the mouth of the River Don, where I would turn inland and then enter Aberdeen proper. And when I say ‘rapidly,’ what I actually mean is ‘slowly and painfully, showing signs of sunburn and fatigue.’
It is Donmouth that gives Aberdeen as a whole its name, deriving from the earlier form Aberdon, formed from aber, the Brythonic term for river mouth, and ‘Don.’ The city has long since expanded, though, to fill up the space between the rivers Don and Dee and spread beyond both. The suburb of Bridge of Don is one such transriverine example.
Brig o’ Balgownie
Unsurprisingly, the suburb is named for the actual Bridge of Don of which there have been two and a half. The original bridge, also known as the Brig o’ Balgownie, stands about a mile upstream from Donmouth and was erected in the 13th century, which is traditionally said to have been done on the orders of Robert the Bruce (1274-1329).
Bridge of Don
The second Don crossing was designed by civil engineer John Gibb (1776-1850) and John Smith – whom you may recall was the architect of Menie House – and was subsequently modified by Gibb’s close associate, Thomas Telford (1757-1834) because it’s presumably against the law for anything in Scotland to not have been designed by Telford. Construction began in 1827 and was completed in 1830, following an embarrassing demolition-and-rebuilding episode to fix foundation problems. Even Telford hit snags now and then.
I said that there were ‘two and a half bridges’ because the aforementioned trio’s bridge forms one half of the Bridge of Don that stands today. It was widened in 1959, from 24 feet (7.3 m), to 66 feet (20 m), incorporating the 1830 bridge into the new structure:
Time for Plan B
Having reached the Bridge of Don, I found myself reappraising my next steps. ‘Plan A’ had been–
Well, I guess ‘Plan A’ had been to loop round via the Brig o’ Balgownie and I had already skipped that, but ‘Plan A, Part II’ had been to take a left after crossing the Don and then to follow the coast road down to the harbour before curving about to enter the city centre. It was a good plan, I thought, and that opinion hadn’t changed. I just didn’t want to do it anymore.
I was tired, achy, sunburnt and hot. What I wanted, right then, was an ice cream and a cold drink and I figured I was more likely to find somewhere to sell me one if I headed straight into the city. Plus, I had never been to Aberdeen before and I thought I might like to actually see some of it along the way. A new ‘Plan B’ quickly materialised which starkly simple. The Bridge of Don had carried the A956 and I would just follow that A-road south into the city.
This stretch of the A956 was called King Street and lays claim to be the longest named street in the UK at two miles in length. A claim which is hotly protested by Glasgow’s Duke Street, which is of similar length. But a king clearly outranks a duke, so Aberdeen must win by precedence.
The street initially carried me past some tower blocks and was populated mainly by students, the University of Aberdeen (est. 1495) being close by. Students need to eat, albeit cheaply, so this meant I soon found a shop to sell me that ice cream and cold drink I so desired. Was it cheap? I’ve no idea – I live in London; literally everywhere else in the country seems like a bargain to me.
As I headed down King Street, the buildings changed. I passed tower blocks, cottages, houses and modern blocks of flats. Closer to the city centre, they became mostly three-story granite-faced buildings with shops on the ground floor:
King Street came to an end at Castle Street, which is named for the mediaeval Aberdeen Castle, though that no longer exists. It hasn’t existed for quite some while, either – it was slighted in 1308 on the orders of Robert the Bruce.
In 1686, Some 378 years after Castle Street lost its castle, it gained a rather lovely Mercat Cross (i.e., market cross), designed and built by local architect John Montgomery with an upper balcony from which proclamations could be read. In 1715, James Stuart (1688-1766), the Old Pretender, was declared king in this way, which was unfortunate because his Jacobite Rising subsequently failed.
An Erroneous Engraving
The Mercat Cross is richly decorated with carvings, sporting oval-framed bas-reliefs of the Stuart monarchs from James I to James VII around the parapet, along with the Royal Arms and those of the city. A white marble unicorn with a gilded horn tops off the whole thing, though this and the column it sits upon are both mid-1990s replacements, the originals residing on display within the Tolbooth.
The arms as depicted have the right elements – the three lions of England, the fleurs-de-lys of France, the harp of Ireland and the lion rampant of Scotland – but arranged in a way that has never been used. I mean, it’s arguably better balanced than the actual coat of arms of the day, which was the 1603 pattern of James VI, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. It puts England in pride of place in the first quarter, for instance, which seems like the sort of error a Scot would rather claw out his own eyes than make.
The arms of Aberdeen are thankfully correct, showing three white towers within that Scottish favourite, the double-tressure decorated with fleurs-de-lys. The towers represent Aberdeen Castle, the City Gate and a chapel on St Catherine’s Hill, all three of which are long gone. As is St Catherine’s Hill.
Salvation Army Citadel
The turreted and crenelated building in the background of the Mercat Cross photo is the Salvation Army Citadel, built in 1896 to a design by local architect James Souttar (1840-1922), which he based on Balmoral Castle. It stands on the site where Aberdeen Castle once stood.
Gordon Highlanders Statue
While the Salvation Army might call its members ‘soldiers’, Castle Street contains a monument to some actual soldiers, namely those who served and fought in the Gordon Highlanders. This famous regiment was raised in 1794 as the 92nd Regiment of Foot and saw long service before becoming amalgamated into the Highlanders (Seaforth, Gordons and Camerons) in 1994. The Highlanders were then further amalgamated to become the 4th battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland in 2006.
The statue was sculpted by Mark Richards in 2010 and unveiled the following year by the Colonel-in-Chief of the Gordon Highlanders, the Duke of Rothesay (now King Charles III – Duke of Rothesay is the Scottish title borne by the heir to the throne).
The statue’s location is not accidental; the Gordon Highlanders’ original barracks was located in Castle Street.
Aberdeen Town House
The Gordon Highlander was looking towards Union Street, which makes sense as the junction of the two streets is where the barracks had stood. Though that has long gone, another building from about a century later, remains in all its Scottish Baronial glory:
Completed in 1874, Aberdeen Town House was designed by architects Peddie & Kinnear – a partnership between John Peddie (1824–1891) and Charles Kinnear (1830-1894) – to serve as the home of Aberdeen Town Council. This it did until 1895, when the council was replaced by Aberdeen Corporation, which was in turn replaced by Aberdeen District Council, under the wider Grampian Regional Council, after Scottish local government reforms in 1975. Things changed again in 1996, when Aberdeen City Council was created as a unitary authority.
The council still retains Aberdeen Town House as its headquarters, though it shares the building with the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS), which operates Aberdeen Sheriff Court and Justice of the Peace Court within its walls.
Fishing Industry Memorial
This was all very interesting but I needed to cut down to closer to the harbour and to Aberdeen Railway Station. I did this by means of a street called Shiprow, where something looked fishy to me:
Located outside Aberdeen Maritime Museum, the Fishing Industry Memorial was created in 2018 to ‘recognise the men and women who lived, worked and died in the industry, in peacetime and in war, and to commemorate the major contribution fishing has made to the city’s life and heritage.’ Or so a handy plaque informed me. The sculptor’s name was David Williams-Ellis.
Port of Aberdeen
Mere moments later, I found myself standing on Trinity Quay, which was pretty busy with traffic on account of being another part of the A956. Or, at least, its dry bits were. The wet bits were part of Aberdeen’s North Harbour, and go back a long way – a charter of 1281 indicated that a pier extended from the southern end of Shiprow even then. The history of the port in general goes back further still, with an 1136 charter of David I allowing the Bishop of Aberdeen to exact a tithe on vessels using the port.
Scottish bishops went by the wayside a while back but the port is still going strong, with its modern layout having developed from 1770 onwards. Such civil engineering luminaries as John Smeaton (1724-1792) and Thomas Telford both had a hand in it, while John Gibb was appointed the resident harbour engineer.
In 2017, work began to construct a new South Harbour in Nigg Bay, which led to what had previously been simply Aberdeen Harbour to be directionally rebranded. This tells us that here at least the harbour is no long-faded memory but an active, thriving part of the economy. Mainly, because it is Europe’s primary port serving the offshore oil and gas industry in the North Sea.
Aberdeen Railway Station
From Trinity Quay it was just a quick shuffle sideways to put me on Guild Street, where the railway station was. This was opened in 1867 and its Denburn Valley Line bridged the gap between the line north to Inverness and that south to Dundee, which had had annoyingly separate termini (both of which have long since closed).
I didn’t actually need the station quite yet, though I would be catching the very first train south early the next morning. But I did need the Station Hotel, which was situated pretty much opposite, occupying what had once been the headquarters of the Great North of Scotland Railway. As hotels go, this was pretty average but that’s way better than terrible and I had chosen it for its convenience rather than any other charms.
This time: 13½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,343 miles